I do know that I have had the opportunity to grow and learn through my many interactions with people during my own explorations of the real thing. And those experiences helped lead me to my place in life.
My first experience overseas took me to a family in a small farming village in France. I remember the tears my French “father” had in his eyes as he bid goodbye to me on the train station platform. That we had made a strong connection was all the more amazing since my limited French was not enough for me to fully understand his speech, which often came out in incomprehensible, staccato-like bursts.
I also spent an academic year in Luxembourg. The opportunity to live in a “Lux” home, to interact with people and the amazing travels I had while there solidified my desire to be involved in international activities.
Of course, I imagined that being in international education would involve exciting trips to new and, at least to me, exotic places. Most people ask me about my travels when they hear what I do. The reality is, my job brings interesting people to me, not the other way around. I encourage others to travel and to experience the different, the unknown. And I love it. I’m provided with a window on the world each day.
I wanted to write without bringing up Sept. 11, but I can’t. International students and international education have been both vilified and questioned since then. But I truly believe that if ever there was a time that international education is necessary, it is now.
We need students from other countries coming to the United States, sitting in classrooms with American students, laughing and arguing and challenging and learning from each other. We need them to go home with their knowledge and understanding to build and strengthen their societies. And we need American students to leave their comfortable cocoons and go laugh and learn and challenge and argue with students in other countries. And then, we need them to return to build and strengthen our society.
We need understanding across cultures. Everyone needs a window on this world. And international education plays a key role in this.
I sit in my office with trinkets from all over the world—gifts from international students. Students come in and tell me their stories—some heartwarming, some tragic, all of great importance to them. And my window opens wider. I walk out to the lounge area and overhear an energetic debate on dating and marriage. Even wider.
Then, I return to my office, to the frustrating world of paperwork and immigration rules. Rules that don’t always recognize the reality of students’ lives. Rules that promise to be even more difficult and frustrating in the future. How do we create a more secure world without losing knowledge and understanding? Without withdrawing into a state of isolation? I wonder and I worry. And I feel that window close a bit.
A few days before Thanksgiving last year, the Xavier International Club hosted a holiday dinner. It should have been a disaster. The turkey took much longer than planned. More people than expected showed up. And yet, as we bustled around, I heard laughing and singing. I looked out to see students from all over the globe trying (with much hilarity) Arabic dancing. I thought, “This is why I do this.” And the breeze that floated in from that wide-open window was intoxicating.
(Kathy Hammett is director for international student services.)